Moving Your Strategic Vision Forward While Growing Your Board

photo (4)By Dawn S. Reese, executive director and co-CEO, The Wooden Floor

I ran into another CEO the other day, and asked her if her organization had term limits in effect. In 2010, after conducting a BoardSource board self-assessment and reviewing its recommendations, The Wooden Floor implemented its first term limits policy. And now we were about to experience our first group of board members to be termed out. In our conversation, the CEO mentioned that she had experienced one downfall to term limits that I had never thought of — the board that you will have in the future may not be the board that made key and historic decisions for your organization and, therefore, may not have the passion required to fully execute on those decisions.

After concluding that this scenario could have a cataclysmic impact on The Wooden Floor’s own 10-year strategic vision that was developed in 2009, I came up with four key ways to mitigate the situation:

  • Tie board recruitment to strategic vision: Before you begin to recruit new board members, use your long-term vision as a key to develop a board member profile that includes an organizational overview, board member attributes, expectations for service, and the nomination process.
  • Make the vision known: Ensure as a part of all board recruitment activities that your strategic vision and the organization’s priorities are at the forefront of all discussions. Focus on recruiting board members who will have the fortitude and capacity to carry forward that vision. Help the candidates understand the critical needs of those you serve and how they may make a difference.
  • On-board effectively: Break the on-boarding process into at least two sessions. Some CEOs will give new board members a fire-hose of information, making it hard for those members to determine what information should be their priority. I believe the first session should be used to provide the new members with a full understanding of the strategic vision — its development, the strategic plan, high-level goals and objectives, as well as all major decisions and initiatives. It is a great time to reiterate what the board’s and CEO’s roles are in executing on this vision. The second session should be focused on board practices such as governance, finance, meetings and committees, mission and case for support, as well as fundraising opportunities.
  • Help them move the vision forward: Create a team environment. Make the new board members feel welcome, and create opportunities for them to assimilate as soon as possible with fellow board members as well as you. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Hidden Benefits of Keeping Teams Intact,” says that most managers (I would say organizations) underestimate the power of familiarity to drive performance. Create check-ins between the board and the CEO to ensure that the members are thinking of ways that they can have personal impact on the decisions that were made by their predecessors.

Dawn S. Reese has leveraged 27 years of business and nonprofit management experience to be a life-changer for low-income youth and help propel The Wooden Floor forward. Her BLF session is titled “Assess to Ascend: Moving Your Board and Organization Forward through Board Assessment.”

Legal Compliance By Design

photo (4)By Brooke Asiatico, founding member, and Katari Buck, member, Asiatico & Associates, PLLC

This post in one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place in Washington, DC, on October 9 & 10. We hope you will be joining us.

We’ve all seen the headlines. From mismanagement to insufficient oversight to criminal activity, nonprofit corporations are not immune from the very same compliance issues that affect for-profits. In some ways, nonprofits may be even more vulnerable to conditions that lead to noncompliance. Rightfully, the mission takes precedence, with governance sometimes taking a backseat. Therefore, the nonprofit board must ensure governance works in concert with, rather than as an impediment to, the organization’s mission-driven activities.

Culture of Compliance

The board can do so by creating a culture of compliance that permeates every level of the organization. From board members to other volunteers, the organization’s stakeholders should understand and embrace compliance as an effective way to ensure the organization’s long-term success.

We often hear from clients who have ignored legal compliance and need our help because they have been audited or investigated or because someone new has joined the organization and brought a new perspective to compliance review. The reasons for noncompliance are many and range from simply not knowing the legal requirements to willful misconduct by someone within the organization. The majority of cases stem from lack of good board oversight with the appropriate processes in place to identify and remedy noncompliant activities. An organization defending itself in an investigation has less time to focus on its mission, so the best strategy is to avoid the investigation altogether.

The Board’s Role

Compliance begins with the board, including selection and onboarding of new members, regular board meetings, and regular communication with the executive director/CEO, CFO, and other key officers. Board member and officer training is critical to ensure familiarity with the state and federal laws governing nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations and practical ways to maintain compliance.

Excellent board governance necessarily includes well-crafted policies and procedures to serve as a guide for both the board itself and the organization as a whole. We often encounter organizations with few, or even no, written governance or financial policies in place. Or, an organization may have excellent policies hidden away and collecting dust. While staff typically carry out the day-to-day activities of the organization, the board can create the framework for ensuring activities are carried out with both the mission and compliance in mind.

How well can your organization handle distraction? Because everything will not run smoothly 100 percent of the time, organizations must be prepared for when things go wrong. With the appropriate framework of compliance implemented by the board and carried out by the board, staff, and volunteers, compliance becomes such a permanent part of the organization’s culture that even a distracting event will not affect compliance efforts.

The Cost of Noncompliance

Some organizations and their leaders believe they cannot afford to hire a professional to assist in compliance efforts. In reality, however, they cannot afford not to. The consequences of noncompliance can be dire and may include internal financial losses caused by fraud, theft, or mismanagement, excise taxes, and penalties levied against individual board members, and in the most egregious cases, even loss of tax exempt status and criminal penalties. This, coupled with the potential negative media attention and loss of support, will be much more costly to an organization than including compliance in an organization’s goals and budget.

Instilling compliance values into an organization beginning with the selection of board members and continuing through every level of the organization will ensure the organization’s mission is never overshadowed by noncompliance and its resulting negative consequences.

Brooke Asiatico is the founding member of Asiatico & Associates, PLLC, a law firm providing trusted legal counsel to nonprofits of all sizes throughout the country. She has advised numerous clients through legal compliance matters, including guiding organizations through IRS audits and state agency investigations.

Katari Buck is a member of Asiatico & Associates, PLLC. She provides legal counsel to nonprofits, focusing on state and federal legal compliance, employment law, and general nonprofit corporate law.

Ethical Decision-Making for Managing Conflicts of Interest

photo (4)By Glenn Doggett, director of professional standards, CFA Institute

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum in Washington, DC, on October 9 & 10. We hope you will be joining us.

Professionals working for nonprofit organizations are likely to encounter situations of conflict of interest at some point. From the demands of donors to concerns about potential grant recipients, there are many decisions an organization must make to ensure it remains true to its stated mission. And when you factor in oversight of the long-term investable assets of the organization, some professionals may believe there are just too many potential conflicts to perform the job successfully.

At CFA Institute, we understand that employees at all levels likely will face an ethical dilemma at some point in their careers. However, just because an ethical challenge or conflict of interest arises does not mean the person facing that dilemma is morally deficient. They may simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Laws, regulations, professional standards, and codes of ethics can guide ethical behavior, but individual judgment is a critical ingredient in making principled choices and engaging in appropriate conduct. Establishing a framework for an ethical decision-making thought process prior to taking a particular action is a crucial step in supporting ethical conduct. Utilizing such a framework for ethical decision-making helps professionals effectively examine their conduct in the context of conflicting interests common to their profession and determine the best course of action to fulfill their responsibilities in an ethical manner.

Often decision frameworks are made based on a linear model or checklist tied to legal and regulatory requirements. Such processes often lead to compliant actions, without effectively addressing the conflict. By applying a principled-based framework, an individual would seek to identify the relevant ethical expectations alongside the regulatory requirements. Next, consider the necessary actions before making a final decision for those situations outside of the confines of “right” and “wrong.” A principles-based framework allows for the consideration of alternative approaches, especially important to the multitude of potential duties that are owed by a nonprofit professional.

Simply nurturing an inclination to do “what is right” is no match for the multitude of factors that could potentially influence the decisions a professional must make. We must regularly exercise ethical decision-making skills to develop the muscle memory necessary for fundamentally ethical people to make good decisions despite potential conflicts. Just as coaching and practice transform our natural ability to run across a field into the technique and endurance required to run a race, teaching, reinforcing, and practicing ethical decision-making skills prepare us to confront the hard issues effectively.

In our session at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, “Ethical Board Investment Committee Practices,” Jonathan Stokes and I will lead a discussion on how to apply an ethical decision-making framework. We will discuss benchmark levels of ethical and professional conduct for investment committees and external investment managers, and give attendees an opportunity to apply an ethical decision-making framework. Through this practice and peer discussion, you will further your personal ethical decision-making skills.

“To Boldly Go Where No One Else Has Gone Before”

photo (4)By Patrick Davis, independent consultant

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. We hope you will be joining us.

These introductory words to the classic Star Trek of the 1960s describe the five-year mission of the fictional starship Enterprise. It also summarizes the very real challenges faced by nonprofit executives and their boards going into the 21st century as they strengthen a partnership similar to the one formed between Captain Kirk and Commander Spock. Leadership in the 21st century requires a balance of both head and heart. During a recent workshop I presented on dialogue skills that was hosted by the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM), participants asked candid questions about governing their organizations into the future:

  • “How do we identify priorities and manage growth?”
  • “How do we maintain quality and satisfaction as we grow?”
  • “How do we bring together diverse resources and perspectives into a shared paradigm?”

One board chair of an organization going through rapid growth added “…and how to ensure we remember to bring our soul along with us?”

These questions get to the heart of a leader’s challenge to meet more needs with shifting resources. Old habits and ways simply don’t work in all situations anymore. We are at a transition point in our leadership practice, and the competency of holding bold dialogue around complex questions is key. Board chairs, CEOs, and leaders of both small and large nonprofits gathered in this workshop to hold a “dialogue on dialogue” for managing growth and change.

Deeper than these organizational challenges we also face personal questions such as

  • “How to balance my personal health and well-being with the pressing need to do more work?”
  • “Where is the best role for me in the next season of life?”

My own candid version of these personal matters is to ask myself, “Who am I to help others if my own life is a mess?”

As a consultant I ask these two questions about dialogue with clients:

  1. How are your leaders currently hosting dialogue across your organization? Most leaders are vague or unsure of this answer. If they are confident about their own practice then they are not sure how the leaders who are accountable to them are doing.
  2. Is dialogue as disciplined as your annual budget process? Most organizations, if honest, say “no” or are equally vague or unsure about how to do this.

Many leaders may not invest in this approach for themselves. However, if we begin offering these opportunities to benefit others who are managing the stress of acute change, then we may reap rewards as well. As super caregivers, our shadow may keep us from focusing on our own needs when sponsoring initiatives.

Whether beginning a career in nonprofit leadership or living into the second half of one, we all need to become more intentional at holding bold dialogue around these challenges that have no easy answers. The workshop reviews the four essential skills demonstrated in effective dialogue. It also reminds us that we are not alone with our deepest questions. The discipline of dialogue offers pragmatic support among colleagues, as we become a mutual village of support to raise our leadership competency to the next level of personal and professional growth.

Due to the urging of Bernie Beach, an executive director of a program in Detroit, Michigan, who used these skills with her board, and the support of Anne Hindery, CEO of the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM), this workshop (“To Boldy Go: Dialogue — Bridging the Art of Contemplation and Action in the 21st Century”) is now being held on the second day of the Board Source Leadership Forum. I invite you to join me as we review the principles of mindful dialogue, “…to seek out new life and civilizations….to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Patrick Davis, MA is a writer, teacher, and consultant to individuals and organizations facing acute change. Patrick brings 30 years of practical experience in various nonprofit settings and he holds a master’s degree in adult education with longstanding teaching associations in community colleges and centers that offer engaging approaches to leadership and professional development.






Consent Decision Making: The “Dynamic Governance” Model

photo (4)By Michael Kelrick, chair, biology department, Truman State University; fellow, PULSE

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, D.C. We hope you will be joining us.

What’s it like to swap the malfunctioning engines on a jet airliner in mid-flight, without crashing? That’s what the last five months have been like for me, as my colleagues and I have implemented “Dynamic Governance” (DG) in our nascent organization.

Some history: Our organization, the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Sciences Education (PULSE), is an unusual experiment, originating as an unprecedented venture of the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (of the National Institutes of Health), and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Program leaders who promote the training of life scientists at these three agencies decided to gather a group of academics from diverse institution types to spark a transformation in life sciences education in the nation’s colleges and universities. Applicants were required to have administrative experience (e.g., as department chairs or deans) and to provide evidence of driving cultural change at their institutions. A nation-wide selection process yielded 40 PULSE Fellows who, for the most part, didn’t know each other. As if from thin air, our organization was born.

In our official fellowship year, we spent a total of only six working days together in person, during an inaugural and a closing meeting. Almost all our interaction was by e-mail, phone, and intermittent video conferences. Yet, by the end of that year, we had projects supported by seven separate grants totaling well over a million dollars. The steering committee of funding agencies that had created our group also choreographed our initial leadership structure; other leaders of working groups arose organically, though without group-defined responsibilities. Our organization was notable in many ways — highly diffuse; comprising many high-functioning, dedicated, and very busy people; remarkably collegial and collaborative; and increasingly aware of the need for better, more systematic communication and coordination. We searched for a mode of self-governance that would preserve and amplify our values and strengths — that valued all voices, shared leadership, open communication, and goal-aligned productivity – while providing a distinct, recognizable structure and process that we could adopt, deliberately. We chose Dynamic Governance, which is also known as sociocracy.

How’s our plane flying these days? For me, it’s been quite a ride. From the get-go, DG tenets helped us clarify a structural plan for PULSE that defined and streamlined the functional hierarchy of our organization. We had been struggling to envision these relationships ourselves, and suddenly, with input from our DG consultants, we had a parsimonious, elegant solution — qualities that make scientists rejoice! This organizational leap made immediate sense to many in the group, which in turn nurtured our confidence and sharpened our sense of our goals.

The signature element of DG processes is consent decision-making. When working groups (known as “circles” in DG) meet to discuss policies or elect circle members to functional roles, systematic procedures (rounds) are practiced, that include every circle member’s contribution. My first experience with the rounds process was a nominations round for a circle leadership role; here, each circle member names a nominee, followed by a description of the nominee’s attributes that suits him/her to the role. I was among the nominees mentioned early in the round; when it was my turn, I self-nominated and had to provide the accompanying self-description. For me, this was a bold choice outside my comfort zone…my heart was racing! In DG elections, a change round follows the nomination round; all circle members affirm or can amend their nominations, again with accompanying reasons. In the election I’m describing, all circle members changed their nominations to me! As the change round progressed, it felt like a gathering wave of endorsement, as the circle converged on a jointly held, conscionable solution. My experience of the emotional power of this process was remarkable. I believe this kind of public, reasoned assurance that acknowledges both rational and emotional input is a refreshing and crucial key to unleashing peoples’ potential. Imagine no more second-guessing, when silence must be accepted as assent! Heartfelt and thoughtful decision-making is the wonderful and surprising outcome with DG.

Michael Kelrick teaches in both the biology department and the environmental studies program at Truman State University, where he has served as Truman’s director of interdisciplinary studies and is currently chair of the biology department. Recently, his selection as a PULSE Fellow has led to learning about, advocating for, and adopting “Dynamic Governance” within the nascent PULSE national organization. His BLF session is titled “Consent Decision Making: The Dynamic Governance Model.” 

Enhance Your Impact Through “Design Thinking”

photo (4)By Theresa Reid, principal, Theresa Reid, PhD + Associates, Consulting

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum, which is taking place in Washingtion, DC, on October 9 & 10. We hope you are planning to join us.

Once upon a time, a packaging designer came up with an ingenious, inexpensive, theft-reducing way for industries to package consumer products: Encase them in airtight, watertight, hard plastic shells. Soon, billions of plastic-encased consumer goods flooded retail shelves from coast to coast. Almost immediately, a chorus of profanity rose skyward across the land as people tried in vain to pry their goods loose from their hermetically sealed packaging. Hospital emergency rooms began routinely treating wounds from the knives, screwdrivers, scissors, and saws that maddened consumers used to get at their stuff.

This infamous example illustrates a major impetus behind the drive to incorporate “design thinking” into innovation-obsessed businesses: the need to understand, empathically, the experience of end users. Sealed plastic packaging is cheap and efficient for producers and retailers, but costly in terms of customers’ time, safety, peace of mind, and satisfaction.

It’s easy to think of examples of bad design in your life. In my house, it’s the bucket that catches the ice in my freezer. No matter what I or my family members do, when we try to take out a few ice cubes, several end up on the floor. There’s nothing for it! That’s not user error – that’s a design flaw.

Many design flaws in our lives are trivial — just annoyances, really. But flaws in the design of programs or products meant to address human problems can hurt people. A sad example: In the 1960s and 1970s, many municipalities sought to improve living conditions for impoverished citizens by building modern high-rise apartment complexes to replace sprawling ghettos of misery. Of course, many of these high-rise complexes — like Cabrini-Green, in Chicago, where I lived — simply became vertical ghettos of misery. Most have been torn down now, thankfully, as municipalities attempt more humane solutions to poverty.

Typically, the most basic ingredient missing in bad design — from the faulty ice-cube container and impenetrable packaging to housing projects like Cabrini-Green — is a real understanding of the experience of the end user.

To avoid costly errors, many businesses and, increasingly, nonprofits and NGOs, are embracing “design thinking,” a six-step process of product or program development that is rooted in empathy and characterized by creative collaboration and rapid experimentation and revision.

The six stages of design thinking are Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, and Revise. In brief, each step is as follows.

Empathize: Understand the people you hope to help and how your decisions will affect them. This means getting out of your office to observe, interview, and interact with your key audience.

Define: Compile all of your observations and carefully conceptualize and articulate a “design challenge” that clarifies the need you’ve discovered in a concise, targeted, and human-centered statement.

Ideate: Use ideation strategies (not just brainstorming) to generate a wide range of possible solutions to the identified challenge.

Prototype: Rapidly create a workable version of the one or two ideas you think are most likely to be effective. Software developers talk about producing a “minimal viable product” — an iteration that is good enough to elicit useful consumer feedback for further targeted revision. That’s your prototype.

Test and Revise: In this stage, test your prototype on prospective end-users. Prototyping, testing, and revising is an iterative process that closely involves the end user, keeping the channels of empathy and understanding open, continuing to revise until the product or program closely meets the needs of the intended recipients.

Like old age, design thinking is not for the faint of heart. Design thinking is a messy process that requires stamina, perseverance, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and openness to the experience of others. And it’s not always the strategy you need.

But when you’re feeling stuck, when your organization is experiencing malaise or stagnancy, when you need to shake it out and get a fresh perspective — then design thinking can be a valuable new tool for driving your organization to well-informed, empathic, and effective activities.

Theresa Reid has worked in board and staff leadership positions in the nonprofit sector for 30 years, most recently with the School of Art & Design and other colleges at the University of Michigan. The session she is presenting at BLF is titled “Using ‘Design Thinking’ to Enhance Your Organization’s Impact.” 



Board Building for a Challenging World

photo (4)By Amish Mehta, CPA, partner and director of not-for-profit services group, Friedman LLP

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are participating in the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place in Washington, D.C., on October 9 & 10. We hope you can join us. 

The Center Against Domestic Violence has experienced some governance challenges, which its board chair, John L. Miscione, and its chief executive officer, Judith Kahan, recently discussed with Amish Mehta. He shares some of the highlights here.

Amish: Let’s step back in terms of where you’ve been, from a board perspective. What have been the challenges, and what have been your needs to enhance the board?

John: Historically, the organization has had a board that was more community based, which aligned with its community-based roots. A good deal of the original board members came out of the community in which we started. Now, the world in which we operate has become more challenging, and in order for the organization to grow, it requires broader skill sets among its board members. We’ve had two challenges: first is re-thinking about what a Center board member looks like, and the second is to find them.

Judy: Historically, due to its nature, domestic abuse has been a topic that has been kept hidden and secret. Because of that, fundraising and board development came very late, and it has taken us many years to establish a board with senior management experience.

Amish: What is your ideal board member candidate?

John: The person has to be knowledgeable about the world of nonprofits and sensitive towards the mission of the organization. At the same time, they have to have a sense of business sophistication: the board needs executive ability as it relates to adaptation, whether it is financial planning or changing the way the organization is managed. So these two characteristics, on top of the ability to fundraise, are key.

We are aware that given the challenging environment, we have to balance the need to have a robust board with the need to have the right people. It’s a more demanding world for everyone. The board and organization is a work in progress: we have a firm foundation, good financials, and a great reputation, and we’re looking for board members with the right skill set to keep the organization moving forward.

Amish: What types of questions are potential board members asking you during the interview process?

John: The biggest obstacle is that people want to make sure they have sufficient time to dedicate to the organization. They want to know the time commitment more than anything else.

Amish: So how do you assure potential board members that they can handle the obligations?

John: Given the nature of our work and that our funding comes from government sources, I can say that relative to other organizations that are donor based, our work load and requirements (six 2-hour board meetings with an additional six hours of time for 10 months of the year) are reasonable.

Amish: What kind of policies and procedures have you implemented to ensure that there is a commitment to good governance?

Judy: The organization has been able to grow from $1 million to $9 million [in annual expenditures], though it has taken 20 years. We’re one of the only domestic violence organizations with a quality assurance component: every record is checked, and we get reports from state and city auditors.

John: The organization has a committee structure, and nominating and finance are two of the key committees. Our finance committee has always been very organized, and there’s always been a disciplined budgeting process overseen by Judy. There’s also always an audited financial statement provided by an auditor of quality. We had a conflict-of-interest review from a major law firm, and have a conflict-of-interest policy in place. Every year, board members must sign various documents on conflicts, whistleblower, etc.

Judy: We also give each board member a list of responsibilities and a manual that contains minutes from last year, the budget, bylaws, and information about the agency. When at least two board members join, we do a board training. Ideally, when a board member’s term is up, we would like for them to replace themselves and find suitable candidates for us.

John: And within the last two years, we had two attorneys join the board who reviewed our by-laws for compliance. Today, the board is considering bringing on a consultant to improve our process and facilitate how we operate.

Amish: How have you managed to make your impact known to the outside world?

John: This is challenging for us, given that many things we do are private in nature. We’re considering making videos with actors in order to tell the stories of the people we’ve helped. If we want to expand, we have to be more knowledgeable and more willing to tell our story in ways that protect the people who use our services, but at the same time allows the wonderful record of this organization to shine so that people can understand what has been done and how we’ve changed lives since 1976.

Amish Mehta can be reached at He will be leading a round-table discussion at the Leadership Forum.


Are You Listening to Your Board Members?

photo (4)By Peter Zehren, president & CEO, Zehren Consulting

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who will be presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, D.C. We hope you will be joining us.

Many boards never understand and utilize the potential each member has to invest in the organization. Having committed to a board, new members are often “on-boarded” out of any fresh, innovative, or challenging ideas they might have. Instead of grooming members to fill the usual skillset, I work to build stronger boards through understanding the value each member brings to the table.

As board members, we can work on building strength through a diversity of new members and a balance of ideas. I’m talking about bankers, artists, architects, techies, and venture capitalists just to mention a few. If we build our board from individuals who have different lenses on the world, who bring thought diversity, we will be able to approach our challenges from new perspectives.

I often remind organizations that board members made a commitment to the organization. Strength comes from honoring those commitments and listening for the interest and value each member has brought to the team. By listening to new members instead of telling them how we operate, I have found we are able to open our board up for change, to see the potential as well as new directions.

The Technique

I apply community-building techniques that re-examine the views and skills each member brings to the table. The method includes asking clarifying questions, active listening, and building understanding before approaching the challenges we face as board members. And, the technique has brought real impact. Through using it, one organization increased donations in one year by 400 percent. It all hinges on learning about each other, respecting our differing methods, and being open to new possibilities. Balancing the thought leaders on our board and allowing them to take ownership for their commitment to the organization builds real strength.

In the BLF session I will be leading on Building a Stronger Board, the participants will work in groups to explore this method. By asking clarifying questions and through active listening, the exercise helps uncover the value each member brings to the team. Commitment, diversity, perspective, and skills are explored in a more personal way that allows each member to get to know the other.

Part of strength also comes from solidifying commitment. Each board member may be able to contribute a range of skills. Each also has a number of commitments they balance. Understanding this ebb and flow can help increase the value your board members can bring to the organization. I have found it also helps in determining when a member should transition off. This type of personal examination can help members understand on their own when it’s time to move on.

How the board views and tells your organization’s story can also bring strength. What is it the board doesn’t know about me as a member? What value could I offer that has not been tapped into? The value and perspective each member has can enrich the way the organization’s message is relayed. As ambassadors for the organization, it’s important that we understand the organization’s story, but it’s equally important that as board member, I can own our part of it. Understanding how each member views the organization’s work will help us shape a stronger message.

The Method

The method I present is more about looking at board process and structure, not about solving problems like scarcity, need for funds, better leadership and how others should change. It focuses on replacing advice with curiosity and exploring an issue from all sides. It is in this search for deeper understanding that we are able to lift the cover on the root of our challenges. To learn what core issues are and how people outside the organization may see them. It leads to building a stronger board.

Peter Zehren has served on and led nonprofit boards throughout his career, and has conducted retreats for as many as seven boards at a time on fundraising and productivity in New York, NY.

Diversity is the New Black

photo (5)By Ebonie Johnson Cooper, chief millennial officer, Friends of Ebonie, LLC

This post is another in our series written by nonprofit leaders presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum (BLF) taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. We encourage you to attend.

Does your board look like the photo on the left? Many do, even though the greatest buzzword in 2014 is “diversity.”

Like the word “millennials,” everyone wants a piece of “diversity” but very few have any idea of what to do with it. Companies boast being committed to diversity and inclusion on their website, and they add the EEOC clause to employee applications to cover their bases, I suppose. Companies like Google release that two percent of its employees are black as a first step to creating change. For executives like Mellody Hobson, one of two black women chairing a publicly traded company, the problem doesn’t just start in the cubicles, it starts in the boardroom. After sharing that she and Harold Ford, a former member of the Tennessee House of Representative, were mistaken for kitchen help at their own event, she broke down just how staggering things are in corporate America. “Even though white men make up just 30 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 70 percent of the corporate board seats,” said Hobson. In my own internet sweep, I found out on Associations Now that 93 percent of white men chair these boards and oh yeah, 87 percent of all corporate boards are all white. And what about public sector organizations? Not much better. “About 20 years ago [nonprofit boards], were 86 percent Caucasian, and in our 2012 Nonprofit Governance Index, that number dropped to about 82 percent,” Vernetta Walker, BoardSource’s chief governance officer shared on Associations Now. However, 30 percent of the 1,300 CEOs surveyed in 2012 by BoardSource said their boards are 100 percent white.

A few months ago, I had four conversations with various professionals in the philanthropic sector, two white men and two black women. All of those discussions touched on the topic of diversity — or lack thereof within the sector. It goes without saying that because I am a black woman and the nature of my work is with black millennials and giving, the comfort to address this topic probably seemed apparent. But what wasn’t so apparent to me is the lack of open-mindedness that exists within philanthropy and particularly nonprofit board governance. In a sector that prides itself on helping the disadvantaged, many of whom are black and brown, it amazes me that the black and brown are rarely at the table helping to make decisions about their own communities. In one of my meetings, it was shared that management felt that finding black professionals to serve on the foundation’s board seemed “out of reach.” In another meeting, the resolution to creating diversity during a company-wide panel was to add a white woman.

Le sigh.

What can you do to help your organization truly be committed to diversity? You can start by learning how to engage with black and brown professionals who desire to serve your organizations.

My goal is to help nonprofits and foundations know that board diversity IS attainable. I know black people give back — and not just in church. I know black people serve as leaders — and their names aren’t just Jesse and Rev. Al. And hey, I even know that using leadership skills is the number one way African American millennials want to give their time. And yes, I know where to find these black people and how to engage with them. Vernetta Walker says it best with this question, “If you’re not ensuring that your leadership is as diverse and inclusive as those that you’re serving, then you have to ask, ‘Are you missing an opportunity? Are you truly representing those whom you say you are?’”

Diversity isn’t just a buzzword; it’s the real world. To be part of the change we wish to see, we ALL need to be at the table. As Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, “We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”

To learn more about increasing racial and generational diversity on your board, I encourage you to attend my BLF session titled “The Young Black & Giving Back: How to Engage African-American Millennials in Board Leadership.”

Ebonie is the chief millennial officer for Friends of Ebonie, LLC, a consulting and coaching boutique specializing in diversity education, training, and programming for and about millennials and philanthropy. You can engage with her on social media at @EJCThatsMe and with the boutique at @FriendsofEbonie.

A version of this post originally appeared on Friends of on June 3, 2014.


Use Advocacy to Close Your Nonprofit’s Doors!

photo (4)By Renee Vandlik, president, Advocacy Difference LLC

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who will be presenting sessions at the BoardSource Leadership Forum (BLF) taking place on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. We hope you’ll be joining us.

Most of us are drawn to the work of nonprofits from the compassion in our hearts, whether it is related to families, children, the arts, nature, parks, or many other causes. Compassion is the raw material on which the nonprofit sector is built, and it resides within all those who support it — staff, board members, volunteers, and constituents. It is because of our compassion that we must become advocates!

Buried within the word “compassion” is the word “passion,” and this is what fuels advocacy — passion for our missions! Advocacy unites the passion we all have toward one common end — accelerating our mission delivery. Advocacy adds credibility and strength to the stories and experiences of the individuals we serve or engage. Advocacy creates broader community awareness of the social issues and opportunities important to our missions. And, advocacy tactics build coalitions and educate our allies and opponents.

Many of us think advocacy is just another word for lobbying, which makes us uncomfortable. While it is true that advocacy does include lobbying, not all advocacy is lobbying. Many advocacy activities are not limited by federal guidelines, nor are classified as lobbying-related activities.

But, for those advocacy tactics that do include direct communication with state or local lawmakers or administrative officials, rather generous federal limitations do exist to ensure the voices of those most passionate can be heard. For nonprofits that file the 501(h) election, limitations are easily measurable and managed. For example, for a nonprofit with an annual operating budget of $250,000, IRS guidelines permit up to $50,000 in direct lobbying expenses, and up to $12,500 in grassroots lobbying expenses. And, for a nonprofit with an annual operating budget of $750,000, IRS guidelines permit up to $137,500 in direct lobbying expenses, and $34,375 in grassroots lobbying expenses.

Advocacy that includes lobbying can be vital to our nonprofit’s mission. It can create reform, fund a public policy, or even shut our nonprofit’s doors — which is a good thing! If we work and volunteer for the right reasons, we should all strive each and every day to close our doors for good! Then, we will have so successfully accelerated our mission delivery that we’ve fulfilled it!

Advocacy unites the voices of those most passionate to deliver one clear message for systematic change. Imagine a world that is a vision of your mission realized. Because of advocacy, perhaps we will someday

  • discover the cause, halt the progression, and cure multiple sclerosis
  • achieve 100 percent high school graduation rates
  • eliminate domestic violence
  • achieve parity in the workforce among men and women workers

While these outcomes may seem too idealistic to achieve, aren’t these examples of the realities and outcomes we seek?

What is your dream? What is your mission? As leaders in the nonprofit sector, we must consider how best and fastest to achieve our desired ends. Doesn’t our compassion demand that we be passionate advocates?

Renee Vandlik is accredited in public relations. She is presenting a BLF session titled “Meet Your Mission with Advocacy.”




  • Boardsource Leadership Forum
  • About

    BoardSource is dedicated to advancing the public good by building exceptional nonprofit boards and inspiring board service. BoardSource strives to support and promote excellence in board service, is the premier source of cutting-edge thinking and resources related to nonprofit boards, and engages and develops the next generation of board leaders.

    To learn more visit
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

  • Topics

  • Archives

  • Connect

  • © Copyright 2014 BoardSource | 750 9th Street, NW, Suite 650 | Washington, DC 20001-4793
    Phone: (202) 349-2500 or 877-89BOARD (877) 892-6273 | Fax (202) 349-2599

  • Please note: “Exceptional Boards” is committed to facilitating meaningful conversations about nonprofit governance and nonprofit sector issues and welcomes guest bloggers and reader comment. As a result, the viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily represent those of BoardSource, nor can we endorse the accuracy or reliability of any content linked from this blog.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 510 other followers